24 October 2015

Curing a mild case of city envy

If you switch back to the rear-facing camera, step backwards, a bit more, you might catch in the frame something as pretty, sprightly, and maybe wiser than you are — the city. Those skyscrapers you pass by every day, they have stood there long before you were born. They have learned to dance with earthquakes and confuse the winds.

“I feel it is important to document the best designs and architecture in each city because they can change its entire landscape,” said Herschel Supply co-founder Lyndon Cormack, who acted more like the avid traveler and photographer at heart that he is during the Herschel #CityLimitless campaign launch on Oct. 22 at A_Space, Makati. “Design is everywhere. City Limitless and photography allow us to capture special moments and the details that show the heartbeat of a city.”

The Instagram hashtag, which began making noise earlier this year, now has close to a hundred thousand posts. It’s a quick way to travel around the world, see the city through the eyes of someone like you — not a professional photographer or travel writer, but someone who’s simply curious. A fair warning, though. If you’re not careful, going through the stream can also stir a mild case of city envy.

We pressed Cormack to cite his favorite photos but he only shared a fascination with the amount of modern architecture as well as the extent people have gone through to get amazing shots, like climbing the top of the tallest buildings.

A photo posted by Lyndon Cormack (@lyndon) on

The entry above is by Cormack. It’s cool to find something you see — and ride — every day in the mix of all these photos around the world. And it’s charming how it stands out.

Cormack stayed for a short time in Manila, to him not enough to get to know the city. What stuck to his memory? The Manila American Cemetery and hand-painted typography. “It’s so easy today to take a font from the computer and print a sign. Everybody is lazy nowadays. I saw a little sign in the jeepney that just said ‘family use,’ but it’s hand-drawn. This is not normal, it’s very special,” he shared as if he had discovered a relic.

With his sense of wonder, we thought he would make a great travel companion. Not to those faraway cities featured in #CityLimitless, but here, in Manila. Much has been said about seeing the same things with fresh eyes, but maybe you do need another set of eyes to appreciate what you have. So an assignment: walk the city with someone, discover, document, and do it all over again. While at it, keep Cormack’s words in mind: “Cities are not just tourist destinations. They have secrets. Hidden gems.”

—Originally published on GIST

19 October 2015

What’s hiding in your playlist?

A friend once ranted that his Spotify account was set to public by default. Meaning for the longest time, the songs he listened and were listening to were for up for everyone’s perusal without him knowing. “So?” I said in all honest confusion. “It’s just music.”

Only later on have I realized that it isn’t just music. It’s life and it’s personal. What you listen to, after all, betrays a piece of you — what you find sublime and beautiful or at the very least agreeable and tolerable. Some have also pointed out the subtle workings of mixtapes and playlists. In a specific moment in your life, you curate songs that convey something you don’t have words for; that if some alien life form discovered it years after, it might be able to decode who you were and your conditions in that instant.

Last month, I, along with a group of writers, had the opportunity to have dinner with Spotify director of label relations Chee Meng Tan, who also happens to be a big music geek. He shared with us that the users’ playlists provide valuable data to the company.

According to him, listening sessions in the Philippines is the highest and most sustained. We make an average of 6 million playlists in a year (I know I’m contributing 29 and counting this 2015), while other countries make 2 million on the average. “Filipinos are so invested in streaming that they tripled the amount,” he said and further suggested that these numbers are a testament to our rich musical culture — that or our unrivaled traffic situation.

Because guess what, “traffic jams” (cheeky, eh?) top the list of popular playlist categories, followed by “hugot.” What does it say about our nation? That, obviously, traffic is hell here and we’re an emotional bunch?

While on the subject, Tan shared that the playlist he listens to the most is what he calls “Random S” — a sort of flavor-of-the-month dump. “There’s jazz, hip hop, Chinese bands, etc.,” he said. Someone in the group also shared that he has a “A good cry” playlist, which, as you may have guessed, contains sad, sappy songs. Everyone else jumped in on the discussion and noted that they, too, have those types of playlists: one wherein they could deposit an interesting song regardless of genre, artist or mood, and another which they play if they’re in the melancholy zone.

And that’s the thing, despite our musical differences, we share common experiences that we tuck in a playlist. They may have different titles and non-identical tracks, but there’s no doubt that a couple of our playlists will more or less come from the same place.

When I was younger, I used to dream of having instant access to all the music that I like and instantly create mixtapes (and I’m sure you did, too). Now it’s so easy with streaming services such as Spotify that I haven’t paused yet to fully appreciate the phenomenon. Because that which appears to be a casual act of compiling songs — as with any activity that involves composition — is therapeutic. For someone who obsesses about order and compartmentalizing life into manageable sections, the humble playlist is a blessing.

Each time I hit “New Playlist,” I remember my angered friend. I remember that if the music you patronize says something about you, then your playlists reveal more than you’re willing to let on. I still don’t mind if anyone gets to peek at my music library (who would be interested, in the first place); and I enjoy looking at others’ collections. But I also understand those who are protective of their music, I understand that sometimes they’re in the middle of a good cry and wish to be left alone.

—Originally published on GIST.PH



Presenting Penthouse, my favorite playlist. My ultimate dream is to host a party at my own penthouse and these will play in the background.

Wait, there's more. Here's the OST of my life.

18 October 2015

Pregnant with fear

This would’ve been a piece I’d written for Mother’s Day, if only because it’s inspired by love between mother and child. But, cloaked in darkness, worm-infested, and teeming with sharp objects, this story is better reserved for Hallows’ Eve.

On the day Samuel was born, his father died. Growing up, his interest turns to magic, watching illusionists on TV and practicing tricks wearing his own shiny little cape. He also has a knack for building contraptions to kill The Babadook, a monster that haunts him and his widowed mother, Amelia.

The Babadook is black. Visible even in daylight, in plain sight, it is everywhere. Its long, tapered fingers are the bare branches of trees, and its garment, the shadow of the dead. The more you deny it, the stronger it gets.

Running a household on her own, without anyone to confide in, Amelia grows restless by the day, tired of Samuel and of life. Until unknowingly she lets The Babadook in, becomes it and goes after her own son. By this time — or perhaps all along — the child serves as the protector of his mother. Samuel employs his weapons and magic tricks to finally catch his monster.

A creation of writer and director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook was released in 2014 in Australia to critical acclaim. In the film, Kent has given form to fear and placed it in the midst of one of the most enduring relationships in humanity.

The result is not a destruction but an acceptance of the trespasser.

Throughout the story, Amelia and Samuel take turns in fighting The Babadook. “I promise to protect you if you protect me,” utters Samuel, and it’s a straightforward, if naive expression of love in words. In the end they tame The Babadook, give it a home in their basement, and feed it worms from the garden.

If not for its terrifying components, the film can easily go in the direction of domestic drama. But framing it as such, as Kent herself says in The Dissolve, “would be so melodramatic and stupid.” She explains, “I like films where I’m forced to feel something… I want to be put through something. If cinema can be visceral, then it’s great. And horror allows that to happen unashamedly.”

Where The Babadook works for me, though, is with how it focuses its lens on the idea that our life-changing actions, especially when it comes to personal relationships, are rooted in fear as much as they are rooted in love. And whenever I find myself refusing to bear a child, declaring an incapacity to love, it is in fact an admission of a fear of failure to protect.

Because it is such a bother. Mundane things must be satisfied daily, like making sure your loved one has eaten when hungry and has rested when weary. And then there are tasks that require a superhero out of you — keeping them away from bullies, muggers, drunk drivers and manipulative girlfriends.

They say life is a gift, but no one says all presents are wonderful. I’m not ready to put into this world another soul, who, in a blink, can wander off into a hell hole. In what can be the scariest but also the most poignant scene in The Babadook, young Samuel, after stabbing her with a kitchen knife and knocking her off the stairs, has his possessed mother pinned down on the ground, telling her with so much fright, “Mom, I’m not leaving you.” I’m not ready to hurt someone for their own good and stay.

The Babadook is horror with a happy ending. After all the panic, you get a warm fuzzy feeling, knowing that all is well as you share a house with your family and your demons. While much of it is grounded in reality, it still treads the path of a fairy tale, if only because the main characters’ triumph is so sweet.

A mother and child bond to conquer their fears, both real and imagined — it’s a storyline we can only dream of in our own lives, or at least I know in mine. But even though I’m nowhere near the story’s bright resolution, I’m thankful that it has taught me to find use for all the worms I catch in my quiet garden.

—Originally published in a slightly different version on GIST.PH

11 October 2015


You're not brave until you're brave for someone or something else.

05 October 2015

Keeping up with David Mack

(My favorite bits of the David Mack AsiaPOP Comicon and Batman Day interviews I did for GIST.PH. I'm combining them here as one story.)


The best way I could describe my first impression of David Mack’s Kabuki was: Dreamy in a way that poetry is mixed with art mixed with cinema, it wasn’t my idea of how comic books should look and read like. Yet unlike dreams, there was an actual story to bite into. I was blown away, to say the least. That was over a decade ago, when, in an attempt to explore the world of graphic novels, I asked the most trusted bookworm in our class to lend me a copy of Neil Gaiman’s works. The next day he handed me a paper bag which contains all volumes of Kabuki: “Read this. It’s better than Sandman,” he said.

“This was pre-Internet, maybe 1992. I was very young, a college student, and so I just found addresses of publishers in comic stores and sent things in the mail to them. And then I called up the publisher in Caliber and said, ‘Hey I sent a package in a mail’ — a very naive approach to things — ‘did you get it?’” narrates Mack. Caliber hadn’t received it, but they gave him a chance and eventually published David’s first book.

Later on in 1993, Caliber Press invited him to join a convention in New York to sign and sell his books. “There were all these other creators, who were people I heard about or read, and it was amazing being able to be right next to them at the table and meeting them,” he continues. “I was selling books, doing drawings for people and then making enough money in New York to buy enough food. It was a really exciting time.” In the same year he was at a convention in Chicago, signing beside Brian Bendis. To cut the long story short, they hit it off — Bendis drew for Kabuki and, more recently, the two co-wrote Marvel’s Daredevil.

Over the weekend, Manila had the same fresh experience as David’s as the city saw its first AsiaPOP Comic Convention. Going around the World Trade Center when visitors just started to trickle in, I came across names of people I heard of and read, and, needless to say, seeing David Mack’s name at a signing table made me jump in surprise. He gamely signed copies of his books, artworks, and talked to fans and the press alike. Quite a storyteller, he was generous in answering all of our questions.

Mack has been at it for 20 years, yet he speaks of the craft as if he’s a child in the wake of discovery. It doesn’t matter if it took us this long to finally meet him (it’s amusing when he talks about getting snail mail from readers back in the ‘90s). Him in the flesh telling his own stories was worth the wait.

Now that I'm done with all my Comicon assignments, I can finally act like a proper fangirl. So a highlight of my weekend (and probably my entire life) was meeting David Mack. He dropped by our booth! Okay it was more of we invited him and he obliged because he's cool like that. The convention brought me back to my more idealistic days, being surrounded by people who live in rich worlds other than this one we're all in. I remember I didn't like being called a nerd or a geek in school (I was presumed to be one just because I was wearing glasses, kept to myself, and did well in class), not because I thought they were uncool but because I wasn't worthy of the tag. I mean, I wish I truly were an expert at something but am not. Anyway. So yeah. Good great ok fine times. I think the occasion merits it: I love job. Thanks to my editor for allowing me to do this with so much freedom. I would also like to thank my bangs for behaving for this photo. NEXT. YEAR. ULIT.
A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

You suggested before that you wrote Kabuki to cope with the death of your mother. Is it still how you approach writing—as a form of therapy?

David Mack: When I first started doing Kabuki, I was about 20. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics at the time but I didn’t feel like I was evolved enough or self-conscious enough to do a straight autobiographical comic. So I felt like if I could put a veil between me and the character — set it in a different part of the world and make the character a different gender — then I could tell personal truths through these metaphors. I wasn’t even thinking through it in that detail, that I was really working out something.

But in retrospect I could see that it was kind of my laboratory for figuring out a lot of things that were going on in my life during those times. And I would imagine to some degree it’s still that way. That my work in general, my writing or my art, is kind of a laboratory for processing everything that you experience consciously, but also unconsciously. So there’s probably stuff that I’m doing in work now that maybe five or ten years after I’ll look back and see what I was really doing.

What is it about Kabuki that keeps people interested after all these years? People still crave for it, are still discovering it, even you still find it fun to write.

David: I feel like the characters’ been very multi-faceted, so it offers a lot of points of entry for other readers to connect with and then find the other facets of it as they go, even if they start at the most recent book. I try to keep it reader-friendly. Just the fact that the characters have been able to evolve with me makes it interesting for readers who’ve been there from the beginning to stick with it many years later, and also for brand new readers to jump on it any time.

What makes a good hero and a good villain?

David: Most villains don’t think they are villains. They’re doing things for certain reasons that motivate them — or most characters think they’re motivated by one thing but are unconsciously motivated by something else. What often happens is they have a traumatic experience in their formative years as a child and the rest of their adult life they’ll try to reenact it but this time in a way that they’re in control. And it’s the same way in real life, too.

I don’t begin by thinking of one person as good or bad. I usually think, ‘This happened to them and so how would they react to (a certain situation)?’ It’s interesting but often it’s because of the characters’ parents, what standards they set. (It affects) how they react as a villain or a hero. But all of them are just trying to make sense of the world the best they can.

If there’s only one lesson you could teach to aspiring writers, what would it be?

David: Number one, start it. Number two, finish it. And number three, show it to people over and over.

Some people talk about this book they’re going to do all the time. Talking about it can really be helpful if you’re actually writing it at the same time. But if you’re only talking about it and never start it, it’s just still this thing you think you could’ve done. Then some people start a project and they don’t want to finish it, they just keep doing it. And there are people who actually finish a project but then they don’t show it to anybody and nothing happens; so you have to show it to as many different levels and places and opportunities as you can. Then move on to the next thing. You have to keep that momentum going.

What’s the best thing about writing?

David: The best thing about it is I feel like with everything I experience in life, this is kind of my laboratory or playground to make sense of it… And when you confront a blank page every day, it makes you comfortable with this idea that no one tells you how to do something, or you have to figure stuff out every day, and every day is a new challenge. Every time I do a book or a story, you would think that because you’ve done it before, you would know how to do the next one, but it’s never like that. It’s like starting over every time and you kind of realize that’s what it is. I think that’s a good exercise for how you have to deal with the rest of life and humanity.

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